Considering that he is the most recent winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, President Barack Obama is in a seemingly curious set of positions. He's spurred major military offensives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been deeply enmeshed in a tense stand-off with Iran.
There are many complex things to be said about each of these situations, which are all interrelated with not only one another, but also US relations with such challenging countries as Israel and Russia. But let's start with the basic versions.
Afghanistan. There's much to be said on the question of how best to go about securing Afghanistan for a democratic, modernizing future, free from the influences of a Dark Ages theocracy which oppresses women and closes the minds of children. But two fundamental things are true. First, America cannot be the world's crusader rabbit, seeking to rush about and right all wrongs. Second, re-making Afghanistan is not why we are there in the first place. We're there to disrupt Al Qaeda and keep jihadists from using the country as a training and staging area for attacks on the US and its allies.
After complaining about the killings over the weekend of top Revolutionary Guards commanders and recent abductions of individuals involved with its nuclear program, Iran has agreed to a deal pushed by the US to have most of its uranium enriched by Russia.
Iran. I don't know if the fundamentalist theocrats who run Iran have intended to develop nuclear weapons. I do know that if they have not, they've done an awfully good job of acting as though they are. Constant delays in international negotiations. And no new inspections have taken place yet in Iran in the wake of last month's revelation of a previously secret underground facility next to a Revolutionary Guard base. Last month, the Iranian regime said it wouldn't even discuss this nuclear program. Yet now there is an apparent breakthrough in Vienna, with Iran agreeing with America, France, and Russia to send most of its nuclear fuel to Russia for enrichment.
Pakistan. This is the ongoing success story of Obama's anti-jihadist strategies. After conning the Bush/Cheney Administration out of many billions of dollars, all the while turning a blind eye to the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda cadre it harbored in its midst -- with jihadists extending their grip over much of the country in the process -- Pakistan has, at Obama's strong urgings this year, pushed back hard. Pakistani Taliban gains have been reversed and the Pakistani Army is now engaged in a ground offensive in the longtime jihadist stronghold of South Waziristan, which it launched over the past weekend. During the Bush/Cheney days, the old Pakistani government had a formal truce allowing jihadists free reign in that region. But much can still go wrong there.
Afghan officials are scrambling to organize a November 7th run-off election after months of wrangling over the largely fraudulent re-election victory of George W. Bush's man in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai.
Obama is in the thicket of "Afghaniranistan," a multi-faceted complex of geopolitical crises. He is actively using military force in two of the countries, and has threatened, at the least, tough sanctions in the third. (The Obama Administration also recently accelerated the development of advanced bunker-buster bombs, suitable for use against, say, underground nuclear facilities.)
Which is a seemingly odd place for the most recent Nobel Peace Prize winner to be.
Many on the right have convinced themselves that Obama is a peacenik, a man who won't stand up to the forces that attacked America on 9/11 and have carried out attacks around the world. Many on the left have convinced themselves -- or say they convinced themselves -- of much the same thing, albeit with a very different cast on the same set of facts.
But both are wrong. Obama is a politician of the center/left. While as a college student he wrote approvingly of disarmament and disapprovingly of intervention, as a mature political figure he has not eschewed the use of force. In fact, in the speech that helped him win the Democratic presidential nomination -- his October 2002 speech as a U.S. Senate candidate opposing the invasion of Iraq -- he did not oppose the war because of any pacifism on his part. Instead, he opposed it as a dumb war.
Still, Obama, in large part due to his soaring speeches, leads many to project upon him what they will. For example, he is an abolitionist when it comes to nuclear weapons. In the long run. Just as his idol, Abraham Lincoln, a famous man of peace, was an abolitionist when it came to slavery. Lincoln, however, came along at a time when slavery could actually be abolished. And yet it took a war to do it. A paradox of politics.
Lincoln was a profound idealist, and a profound pragmatist. Obama also blends idealism and realpolitik in his political technique. He is blending a high-profile program of reaching out to the Muslim world as a whole -- evidenced by his brilliant Cairo address of June -- while lethally targeting jihadist cadre.
This is why aerial drone strikes against Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and cadre in Pakistan have actually increased under Obama. He authorized a daring special forces mission to kill a top Al Qaeda leader deep inside Somalia, as well as the highly publicized rescue of an American freighter captain (and execution of his captors) by Navy Seals off the coast of Somalia. And this is what we know.
Following the killings on Sunday of much of its top leadership, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard claimed that the US, Britain, and Pakistan instigated the action.
With Iran sending signals that it would not budge on the question of further enriching its own uranium, rather than send it to Russia or France, top leaders and cadre of the Revolutionary Guards -- the military organization with a base next to the previously secret underground nuclear facility revealed last month -- were killed in terrorist bombings apparently carried out by an Iranian Sunni militant group on Sunday. The surviving Revolutionary Guards commander claimed that the killings were instigated by British, Pakistani ... and American intelligence. All three governments denied any role.
Intriguingly, Iran did not claim that operatives from Israel's Mossad or Sayeret had a hand in the deadly strikes. This is a serious blow to Revolutionary Guard prestige. After all, if they can't protect their leaders, how can they protect, and intimidate, the nation?
Just before the apparent breakthrough in nuclear negotiations in Vienna, Iran's foreign minister accused the US of being behind the abduction of three Iranians involved with the nuclear program. (Though one of the apparent abductions took place before Obama became president.)
If the Iranian nuclear deal is approved, it looks to be a good step forward. After refusing yesterday to deal at all with France, stalling yesterday's talks, Iran today agreed in negotiations with the US, France, and Russia to send 75% of its nuclear fuel for further enrichment to Russia.Obama, in what was no doubt a lovely conversation, congratulated Karzai for "accepting the certification" of the Afghan election.
The other 25% is deemed insufficient to start a nuclear weapons program. I'm not sure of the status of international inspections in Iran with regard to being sure that it is only 25%, or whether the delayed inspection of the previously secret underground facility will take place this weekend.
The governments of Iran, Russia, France, and the US must all approve the deal. Israel, which is not a party to the negotiations but a more than interested bystander, to say the least, had a deputy defense minister say today on Israeli Army Radio that, "It shows that the international pressure is working, but it must continue so that Teheran will not have an atomic bomb."
Then there is the question of Russia, which wants more sway over the post-Soviet space around it. For the obvious great power reasons, and for its own historic sense of self-defense, which is often missed in discussions of Moscow's intentions.
Assuming that the deal is implemented and appropriate inspections are carried out, Obama looks at least to have delayed the Iranian crisis, if not eliminated it entirely.
Which leaves the eternal AfPak question, and Obama's latest coming course correction in Afghanistan.
A UN-backed elections commission found massive fraud in the claimed August 20th re-election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, leading to a long-delayed November 7th run-off election.
Obama is taking his time with this decision, as he should. It's merely one of the most momentous of his presidency.
It took a lot to get this November 7th run-off between a very reluctant President Hamid Karzai and former Foreign Minister and Northern Alliance spokesman Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. You can't have a strategy for a country if you don't have an at least moderately credible government.
Incidentally, major kudos are called for Senator John Kerry, with whom Obama met today in the Oval Office. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, has returned from Afghanistan where he played a key role in effecting a run-off presidential election upon a recalcitrant Karzai, who proclaimed himself a landslide winner, only for the UN-backed elections commission to find evidence of massive fraud in his vote. Half the local registrars for the original August 20th election have been fired.
Kerry, incidentally, personally picked Obama to deliver his famed 2004 Democratic national convention address, which vaulted Obama into the political stratosphere. He's known to be an advocate of caution on Afghanistan, having served in Vietnam himself.
There's just one thing about having a better government in Kabul, assuming one emerges through a variety of means after November 7th. It might convince Obama to slide down the old nation-building skids.